The Legacy of Shelley's Poetry

The Legacy of Shelley’s Poetry

written by Donald Naggie

edited by LA Jamison

Don has a Masters in Literature and resides in Boston. He now teaches ESL (English as a Second Language) and is available for tutoring online. You can contact him via facebook or don_c_naggie@yahoo.com

This is the last of a 3 part series on Percy Bysshe Shelley: see the following links for previous portions:

Part One--The Man

Part Two--Cycle of Vision

Shelley has had an enormous influence over subsequent poets. Yeats, Browning, Walt Whitman, Wallace Stevens, and Hart Crane all show strong traces of Shelley’s influence. Shelley would also be formative to social rights activists including John Ruskin, Karl Marx, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. Yeats gave one of my favorite depictions of Shelley:

In ancient times, it seems to me that Blake, who for all his protest was glad to be alive, and ever spoke of his gladness, would have worshiped in some chapel of the Sun, but that Shelley, who hated life because he sought ‘more in life than any understood,’ would have wandered, lost in ceaseless reverie, in some chapel of the Star of infinite desire.
I think too that as he knelt before an altar where a thin flame burnt in a lamp made of green agate, a single vision would have come to him again and again, a vision of a boat drifting down a broad river between high hills where there were caves and towers, and following the light of one Star; and that voices would have told him how there is for every man some one scene, some one adventure, some one picture that is the image of his secret life, for wisdom first speaks in images, and that this one image, if he would but brood over it his life long, would lead his soul, disentangled from unmeaning circumstance and the ebb and flow of the world, into that far household where the undying gods await all whose souls have become simple as flame, whose bodies have become quiet as an agate lamp.

I also came across a quote by Charles Bukowski, “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts while the stupid one’s are full of confidence.” And I realized immediately that this was the fruit of Shelley’s influence. The direct influence is from Yeats’ famous poem “The Second Coming,” “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” But the influence on Yeats, as it often is, was Shelley:

The good want power, but to weep barren tears.

The powerful goodness want: worse need for them.

The wise want love; and those who love want wisdom;

And all best things are thus confused to ill.

Many are strong and rich, and would be just,

But live among their suffering fellow-men

As if none felt: they know not what they do. 

Shelley was both one of the most profound visionaries and idealists amongst the poets as well as the most thorough going skeptics. His influence is as needed now as it has ever been.

"Never complain, never explain."
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu